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Nations: Securing a place in history

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Jeff Nations

By Jeff Nations - jnations@nvdaily.com

Two down, one to go.

All that remains for I'll Have Another is a 1 1/2-mile test in the Belmont Stakes a little less than three weeks from now.

Win it, and the California-based colt becomes horse racing's 12th-ever Triple Crown winner and first since 1978, an agonizingly long 34-year drought for a sport still struggling to keep the turnstiles moving the rest of the year.

Despite the rarity of the accomplishment, getting this far is no sure thing for the Doug O'Neill-trained colt. Since Affirmed claimed horse racing's last Triple Crown in 1978, 11 other horses have won the first two legs -- the Kentucky Derby and The Preakness -- only to fall short in the Belmont. The last, powerfully-built colt Big Brown, completely collapsed en route to a last-place finish in the 2008 Belmont.

So there's the alternatives for I'll Have Another -- add his name to an illustrious company of horse racing royalty including the likes of Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat (the three most recent Triple Crown winners) -- or join the lengthy list of Belmont flops. There's Big Brown, of course, but also Smarty Jones (2004), Funny Cide (2003), War Emblem (2002), Charismatic (1999), Real Quiet (1998), Silver Charm (1997), Sunday Silence (1989), Alysheba (1987), Pleasant Colony (1981) and Spectacular Bid (1979). All great horses, and all beaten on that fateful day at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

History is at stake, and not just for I'll Have Another. Bodemeister, the favorite and eventual runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness this year, has one last chance to beat his rival and once more deny a Triple Crown contender his place in racing legend.

Bodemeister, bred by Clarke County's Audley Farm, is a California-based runner just like I'll Have Another. After a spectacular effort in the Arkansas Derby, a major prep for Churchill Downs, Bodemeister surged to the front of the pack of Derby hopefuls to emerge as the race-day favorite.

Trained by the legendary Bob Baffert, Bodemeister set a blistering pace -- unsustainably so -- at the Kentucky Derby. I'll Have Another, with jockey Mario Gutierrez aboard, bided his time and unveiled his closing speed over the final furlong to reel in Bodemeister for a 1 1/2-length victory.

Even so, I'll Have Another didn't rate favorite status heading into Saturday's Belmont. That honor again went to Bodemeister, whose front-running style seemed to favor the shorter race at Pimlico. Unlike Derby at Louisville's Churchill Downs, the Preakness doesn't favor the late-charging style of a horse like I'll Have Another.

That's the reasoning, anyway. Instead, I'll Have Another duplicated his Derby performance with another jaw-dropping charge down the stretch. This time, his margin of victory was much slighter as the J. Paul Reddam-owned colt beat Bodemeister to the wire by a neck.

Bodemeister, the 8-5 favorite on Saturday, beat third-place finisher Creative Cause by 8 3/4 lengths.

Rest assured, Bodemeister won't be favored in the Belmont. Equally likely, though, is that the chestnut colt will probably rate a strong second among bettors.

Think Alydar. That's the horse Bodemeister is emulating in this latest Triple Crown saga. Alydar, known as perhaps the greatest horse never to win a Triple Crown race, is forever linked to Affirmed, and vice versa. Without one, could there have been the other?

It's a good comparison for I'll Have Another, for certain. When jockey Steve Cauthen guided Affirmed to ever-closer victories over his rival Jorge Velasquez and Affirmed, it was with a front-running style reminiscent of Bodemeister. I'll Have Another is more in the mold of Alydar, a horse content to pick his moment and unleash an all-out attack late in the race.

In the Belmont, the longest of the three Triple Crown races, that late-closing style favors I'll Have Another. To really cement his legacy -- and Bodemeister's, as well -- I'll Have Another must come through and win that elusive final leg at Belmont Park. Anything less, and he joins the list of near-misses. And Bodemeister, short of winning -- which, ironically, probably would lessen his long-term fame -- must push his California rival to the limit one last time to leave his name indelibly attached to the Triple Crown.

Affirmed-Alydar? It takes two great horses to establish a rivalry of that lasting fame.

I'll Have Another and Bodemeister are two-thirds of the way there. Just 1 1/2 miles to go.

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